janeiro 10, 2013


The Universe is a messy and dangerous place. Fitness is not an optional policy in the natural selection perpetual genocide. The successful life-and-death stories of our ancient primate ancestors were imprinted in our genes. They still partially define, even today in our complex social world, what 'human' means. Our brains and bodies have default mechanisms that shape and limit our cognitive abilities, our ability to learn and remember, to reason and feel, to introspect. What we recognize as 'I'.

For fitness sake, the evolution of our actions, our behavior, converged to pursue (desire) certain sensations -- feelings, brain states -- and avoid (fear) others. Two examples are sexual arousal and pain, respectively. We are able to learn that different contexts favor different sensations. We adapt and manage our desires and fears to serve the multilayered goal of survival (multilayered in the sense of being made of several, more specific sub-goals but also for having multiple and not necessarily compatible solutions).

One powerful factor in this emotional and sensorial ecosystem is society. Society inhibits or enhances sensations, desires and goals through social conditioning not necessarily concerned with individual survival. One example is how nationalism is able to transfer and corrupt the genetic instincts of family into social norms to better serve the preservation of a national concept. However, this reshaping is not arbitrary, since it is impossible to remove our primitive genetic behavioral heritage without losing the person within. Humans minds are elastic but they are not blank slates. The resulting individual behavior turns out to be quite subtle in complex societies, forcing part of our genetic past into sleep mode, hardly detected in normal, non stressful situations. Herein, we are not that different from most social mammals.

But we humans are not satisfied with just that. Humans are active believers, constantly inserting meaning into the world stuff and into the mind stuff. We are addicted to belief and cannot help ourselves. One important side effect is value. A value is determined by the desire/fear intensity for a certain sensation. It is natural for us to classify a goal towards a attractive (repulsive) sensation has having a good (bad) value. And then that goal's value contaminates the cognitive architecture: a good (bad) goal must come from virtuous (vicious) desires and promotes right (wrong) actions. We elaborate enormous cognitive structures around the value concept. Ethics, Politics and Religion are basically arguments -- logical, empirical, traditional, dogmatic arguments -- to shape how values, virtues and righteousness are mapped. We feel that something has value, that acting such and such is right, but these are just instances of the mind projection fallacy. They are the result of our unrestrained use of meaning inception. They are internal mind attributes not external features of those somethings. We do not avoid something because it is bad, we define as bad those things we want to avoid.

This does not imply that meaning is arbitrary or relative. We are social animals after all, and share sensations, desires, goals. Our biology and cognitive apparatus is the same. So, at least for homo sapiens, this mapping does not have that much variability. Pain, say, is intrinsically a sensation to avoid. It is no surprise that violence towards other humans is usually considered a wrong action or that, for promoting violence, political and religious leaders choose first to dehumanize the enemy.

And where is consciousness in all this? Consciousness is not necessary for this sensation/desire/goal structure nor for the resulting behavior. Many different animals seem to be equipped with them and still don't seem to possess consciousness. Also, consciousness is not necessary for choice. A simple mechanism is able to make choices when faced with multiple options (even a thermostat has capacity for binary choice). A choice is the process of selecting an action among possible actions. It can be described in algorithmic terms (one classical definition is the maximization of expected utility) and, at least in its basic form, does not need cognition. However, perhaps consciousness provides value assignment to goals. Perhaps human consciousness includes (is?) our belief generator. Perhaps consciousness is a cognitive  and social contagious infection which the symptoms are persons. Who knows how to untangle a metaphorical web using just its metaphors?

We need beliefs to fictionalize an impersonal world, filing it with meaningful narratives, appropriate reasons and reasonable causes. We also need a world with persons. Other persons and ourselves. But an indifferent Universe does not offer anything like that, only pain and pleasure, life and death. So why not, collectively, make up everything else? 

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